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Congress made strides in breaking up big tech in 2022, but still has a ways to go

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Congress made strides in breaking up big tech in 2022, but still has a ways to go

A progressive coalition sent a memo to Congress about the resistance to ongoing efforts by the legislative branch to break up and regulate Amazon and other big tech companies. The Athena Coalition claims that the companies are employing various tactics to maintain their dominance, including funneling millions to lobbyists and “astroturf” groups.

It also says that in spite of these efforts, there has been some progress.

“This Congress has taken significant first steps toward reining in Amazon’s power, setting
the foundation for Amazon to be broken up once and for all,” the Athena Coalition’s memo states.

The Athena Coalition’s members and partners include local and national organizations that advocate for progressive issues. Its website states that its goal is to “create an economy where everyone can thrive, defend our climate, safeguard our communities from surveillance, and expand our democracy.”

Amazon, in its view, is fighting against that, as it and other companies have relentlessly blocked efforts to diminish their power and market shares. According to the memo, since the beginning of 2021, big tech companies have spent $95 million on lobbyists. Amazon alone reportedly spent $16 million thus far this year, it says, making it “the 6th largest spender on lobbying in the country, and the single largest individual corporate spender.”

Amazon didn’t respond to an emailed inquiry sent Monday morning.

One of the Athena Coalition’s most serious claims against Amazon and other big tech companies is that they use astroturf groups to press their agenda. Its memo alleges that they’re following tobacco and oil companies’ “playbooks of the past.”

It points to one group in particular: the Chamber of Progress. The chamber was founded by a former Google lobbyist in 2020 and purports to advocate for progressive causes. “We back public policies that will build a fairer, more inclusive country in which all people benefit from technological leaps,” its website states.

According to the Athena Coalition, the Chamber of Progress is actually a puppet of its partners. These include some of the biggest tech companies in the world: Amazon, Meta, Uber, Google, Apple, DoorDash, Instacart, Zillow, Airbnb, and Lyft are listed as the chamber’s partners.

The chamber didn’t respond to a request for comment sent via email Monday morning. Its website denies that its partners have any voice in the issues it advocates for.

Many of its stated positions appear to align rather closely with the multibillion-dollar tech companies who’ve partnered with the Chamber of Progress, however. Some of its positions are clearly the same as its partners; others are worded in ways that can make it difficult to ascertain what it really stands for.

It plainly supports Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but more vaguely says that it opposes regulating online marketplaces in ways “that would harm the entrepreneurs and consumers who depend on these services,” which could be taken as opposition to regulating Amazon, Meta, Google and some of its other partners in the ecommerce arena. The chamber similarly describes house-sharing apps and online real estate, which includes its partners Airbnb and Zillow, as helping “many families keep a roof over their heads.”

The Athena Coalition alleges the tactics other big tech companies use to maintain their dominance are more novel and “ethically ambiguous” than astroturf trade groups.

It pointed to a Politico story from March which found that an Amazon and Google-funded lobbying group listed small businesses as “members” without their knowledge or consent.

“Many small businesses across the country heard about the pro-tech group for the first time when contacted by reporters about their alleged membership,” the coalition’s memo states.

Amazon and other big tech companies have faced a maelstrom of criticisms in recent years. Small businesses, consumers, and members of Congress have echoed the Athena Coalition’s accusations against big tech monoliths and called for them to be broken apart or more highly regulated.

The coalition says that some of these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. It pointed to several proposed bills that would attack the dominance and practices of big tech, such as the Ending Platform Monopolies Act and the State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act. Respectively, these would prohibit large online platforms from offering products or services from a business it controls and prevent companies from requesting the transfer or consolidation of multiple antitrust suits against them to a single venue.

It also applauded President Joe Biden and his administration for taking action against big tech.

“Last summer, President Biden signed an executive order of 72 actions and recommendations to limit Big Tech’s monopolistic power, further codifying the administration’s support of ambitious action against their outsized influence in our economy and our democracy,” the memo states.

The Athena Coalition singled out several incoming members of Congress who’ve voiced support for regulating Amazon and other big tech companies, such as Senator-elect John Fetterman (D-Penn.).

The group acknowledges that much remains to be done to end the dominance of Amazon and other tech giants and that such efforts are likely to be met with fierce resistance.

“Concentrated corporate power has long stood in the way of improved public and social services, safe jobs with good pay, opportunities for entrepreneurs, racial and social equity, and a strong democracy,” the coalition’s memo says. “It is not surprising that Amazon and other Big Tech monopolies are fighting tooth and nail to maintain and grow their power.”

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*First Published: Dec 19, 2022, 1:04 pm CST

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